Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
Their eyes dart back and forth, trying in vain to keep up with the hazy bodies of the young men laboring their way up and down the court. One after another, they pull out handkerchiefs and frantically wipe away the drops of sweat that role down their foreheads and into their eyes, obscuring their vision, until they realize it is a futile effort in this scorching heat. You can catch them glancing down at their wrists more than the court, hopelessly willing the hands of their watches to move faster towards the afternoon hour and a break from the dreadfulness. One wonders why anyone would subject themselves to such circumstances, especially men of such perceived fame and stature, but alas, such is the life of the college basketball coach on the summer recruiting trail.
While fans sit and enjoy the games from their comfortable living room couches, most fail to realize that the outcomes of those contests have often been decided long before. The real battles in college basketball are the ones that involve recruiting – particularly the few weeks in July when hundreds of coaches hit the road to evaluate players and attempt to find a diamond in the rough. The faith of those very coach’s jobs, and the hopes of thousands (if not millions) of their school’s fans, hangs in the balance during those few dog days of summer.
“It’s an absolutely critical time of year. It’s one of the only opportunities we have to see these kids play live and for them to see us too. It shows our interest and commitment to them. We can only hope that they reciprocate,” says Rutgers assistant coach Jim Carr, a Big East veteran.
For this reason, coaches reluctantly prepare themselves to live the month out of a suitcase, bid their families adieu and hit a recruiting trail that has often become nothing less than an adventure. Although the NCAA has put ever tightening restrictions on what summer events are considered “sanctioned”, the road for coaches has become no less burdensome. From Reading to Akron, Augusta to Tulsa, Las Vegas to Orlando, it is not uncommon to see ticket and car rental agents run the other way when they see coaches marching towards their counters. In fact, last year saw such an influx of coaches to the Las Vegas area that rental car agencies were forced to rent out Corvettes to coaches because all of the other cars were sold out. So next time you’re visiting one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world and they run out of rental cars, you know who to blame.
What do coaches do when they finally get to one of these far off gyms? Pay up to $400 for a packet that does nothing more than list each players name and number. Some have compared such showcases to glorified meat markets, with the numbers each player wears no different than the brands you’d find on livestock. Rest assured that the auctioneers that run such events will make sure they are well compensated for their product. Hence why even though a coach came only to see a single player, they must often pay a supposed “entry fee”, which coincidentally, seems to always be equal to the price of a packet.
“Some of those packets can cost quite a bit. We’ve been lucky to have a [recruiting] budget that allows us to attend what we want, but for a lot of other mid-major programs it can create bit of a burden. A lot of schools can’t afford to attend every event and so they have to be more selective in their spending habits… and that just creates an even greater divide between themselves and bigger programs,” says Butler University assistant Matthew Graves.
However, even armed with these packets, evaluating prospects that fit their particular programs is never an easy task for coaches. Often, the teams the athletes play on are not particularly well coached, and for every star player, there are a dozen that stand no chance of gaining a scholarship. Yet thousands of players are mixed in with each other, making the job to find that one particular one that can change the fortunes of a program not unlike finding a needle in a haystack… or more like a basketball in a pool full of basketballs.
“It’s tough… you have dozens of events to cover nationwide and hundreds of prospects you have to sift through to find the ones you really want,” said South Florida assistant Eric Skeeters. “There’s a ton of talent and a lot more that may not be the right fit for your program and it’s your job to filter it all,” he added.
Yet for many coaches, the long summer days are just part of the job. After all, though they may be unnervingly hot, hungry and tired, they are spending hours on end watching the game they have decided to dedicate their lives to…basketball. More significantly, although almost every coach is a hard nosed competitor at heart, and each fully realizes the implications of their work during those few weeks, you won’t find the least bit of hostility in the air at any of these events. The summer recruiting period is a time for coaches to bond, for old and new alike to be amongst those who share so much in common.
“Some call the summer a grind, for me it’s a blast. I get to indulge myself with three things I love hoops, coffee, and hot dogs… The grind is filling out the expense reports when you get back to the office,” said new Columbia University head coach Kyle Smith.
For fans and the public in general, such trips may not be the least bit appealing, but for basketball junkies like Carr, Graves, Skeeters and Smith, there simply isn’t anything they’d rather do.
Follow Adam Zagoria on Twitter
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.